How to Defeat the Little Hitler:
Living as a Child of the Holocaust
Adina Sella, 78, was born in Hamburg, Germany before she moved to Italy with her family in 1940. She moved with her husband Michael to Chicago in 1963.
Adina P. Sella holds the pillow over her head and prays for machine guns. She is eight years old, and her whole family lies crammed under the stairs of the Italian farmhouse. Outside, heavy footsteps click and stomp. The Germans are coming.
The German troops occupying Anghiari are in retreat from the Allied forces, but their attackers are firing on them with bombs and mortars. One errant shell could reduce the family’s hiding place to rubble. Machine guns meant precision and predictability. Bombs meant unprejudiced destruction.
Amid the chaos, Axis soldiers enter the home. Adina’s mother rises and greets the men. They want to use the second floor for reconnaissance to locate the Allies, and they demand for the hiding family to identify themselves. Adina’s mother gives them false information, being careful not to say that they are Jews. The men give some orders and ask more questions, but then, incredibly, leave them alone. Adina grabs her backpack. They might not be so lucky the next time; they have to escape.
The family runs into the dark forest behind the house. There, a small farm-boy huddles in the dark. Through the woods up ahead, the German troops are locked in furious battle with the Allies. The boy shows the family how to crawl through the brush and keep their heads low, beneath the line of fire. Mimicking the young child, Adina and the others make their way through the darkness. On one side are the Allied fighters. On the other side are the German trenches. Bullets and explosives fly overhead and flashes and flames burst around them. After an eternity of crawling through the battlefield, they emerge safely on the other side of the forest. Adina’s mother, father and brother are all safe. No one is harmed.
This is one of Adina Sella’s earliest memories of a girlhood taken by the Holocaust.
“We all have a childhood. They call me a Holocaust survivor. I think it’s not the right [nomenclature]. I am a child of the Holocaust.”
Adina P. Sella is 78 now. She lives alone in an apartment that overlooks Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. Art fills the walls and photographs stand on nearly every surface. Some show youthful grandchildren in vivid color. Others show a younger Adina in grainy black and white. One photograph displays her in her wedding dress, next to a strapping, kind-eyed Middle Eastern man. They seem nothing short of overjoyed. The photos surround a leather armchair, and this is where Sella sits and remembers.
“A Holocaust survivor has had a life before [the war], then he had a Holocaust, and after the Holocaust he could go back to some of his experience and tradition, understandings that he learned before,” she says. “I grew up in the Holocaust. When I was born I have a Hakenkreuz (a swastika) on my birth certificate.”
Marked by the Holocaust since birth. Sella’s story hints at something that strikes a different note than that of other witnesses. It reveals a childhood defined by oppression, and it indicates an experience that extends far beyond the reach of the Second World War.
“I went through and was exposed to a whole lot of things, which I had to survive somehow,” says Sella. “I learned to lie, I learned to cheat, I learned to steal, I learned to feel fine with the biggest lie. I’m a Catholic today, I’m this the other—and these things kept me alive. Now the war is over, and I’m a little girl. All that I know is maladaptive, counter-productive. So it does something.”
“There’s a lion outside and a mouse in the house,” she says. “I had no idea. I was restless, anxious . . .”
You can track Adina’s youth through the names she has carried with her. Sella was not born as Adina at all. Rather, she was called Peggy. “My mom thought it was a cute name,” she says, chuckling. However, in Nazi Germany, Peggy was not considered a “proper Jewish name,” and Peggy’s family was forced to change it. She became Sarah.
When Sarah and her family escaped their home in Hamburg and fled to Italy, that proper Jewish name was now a dangerous label; it had to change again. So, Sarah became Lucia, the girl who would crawl through the woods and hide under the stairs and pray for machine guns.
When the war ended, Lucia went with her mother and brother to what was then called Palestine (the European theater of the Second World War would end in May of 1945, and Israel would not formally declare independence until May of 1948). Upon arriving in their homeland, Lucia was greeted by more change. The emerging state recommended that Lucia become Adina. “I learned to say okay to everything, the Adina stuck,” says Sella.
Adina’s new life in Israel was a new stage for her, and the girl who said okay to everything evolved into a confident, brash young woman. Sella says she was very popular, but also very rebellious. People were drawn to her, but on the inside, she privately wrestled with the pain of her childhood.
“There’s a lion outside and a mouse in the house,” she says. “I had no idea. I was restless, anxious . . . I was popular because I acted the opposite. I was a big agitator. It was not as if I decided to be like this; I couldn’t help myself.” Sella uses the German word Unruhe to describe herself. It means a constant restlessness, a lack of peace.
Later in her life, Sella had it described to her as a little Hitler on her shoulder. “The Hitler says ‘Danger. Fear. Frightening,’” says Sella, “It’s raw, it’s not processed in the child’s mind. You’re always like, [she gasps fearfully and looks around, acting] ‘Where’s my mom?’ You say something—shush. Then they tell you to be a good girl at school, and you don’t know how.”
For a long time, Adina did not know how to deal with the little Hitler, but her future teacher was on his way. He would be her best friend, her biggest supporter and the most understanding person in her life. She was about to meet Michael.
—Adina and Michael Sella met in Geneva, Switzerland when they were both at university. They lived together in Chicago for 35 years before Michael’s death in 1998.
“He knew that she came from a damaging, malignant past. He knew that she carried that little Hitler on her shoulder. Even so, he accepted all of it.”
Adina picked out her future husband from the crowd at a small hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. Her first words about him: “What’s that Arab doing here?”
Her friends tell her that his name is Michael, and that she should not bother. They hear he does not “go” with Israeli girls. Nevertheless, Adina goes up and talks to him, saying right off the bat that she knows how he is, but he should not worry, because he does not have to marry her, or anything like that. As she remembers, Sella mimics herself sputtering and flustering awkwardly. She was a total mess.
Michael, though, sees something else in the bold young woman in front of him. “Well, what if I do want to marry you?” he asks. With that, they begin dating. As Sella would say later, they would become the absolute best of friends.
In Geneva, Adina would make the switch from interpretive studies to psychology, and with the new course-load would come new challenges. Luckily, Michael was there the entire way. Sella tells stories of crying and fretting about upcoming papers she would have to write in foreign languages, but Michael would simply pull out his typewriter and ask, “Well, what do you want to say?” and he would help to translate her thoughts into the new vocabulary. When Michael ran into a difficult exam in medical school, Adina would help him study. One particular test, all about the anatomy of the eye, saw the young woman perched atop their toilet seat while Michael shaved in front of the mirror. His big textbook was in her lap, and she quizzed him on rods and cones.
After every story, Sella punctuates it with the same sentence: “So we passed.” So we passed. Even before she and Michael were married, Adina indicates they were one entity. Theirs’ was an intimacy that went beyond tests and papers. Michael became instrumental to Adina’s recovery. He knew that she came from a damaging, malignant past. He knew that she carried that little Hitler on her shoulder. Even so, he accepted all of it.
“We passed! That is how we lived,” Sella says. “He was a wonderful, scholarly person. He was like an old soul. He was just a year and a half older than me, but he understood that he was dealing with a big mouth but [one who is] very weak, very fragile.” Michael had exposed the contrast between her boisterous exterior and her fractured interior. “I had no idea that I was nuts. If I had let my confusion and fear come up I probably would’ve gone crazy, so I had this persona [imitates a confident laugh]. And when I met Michael I just laid it on him! Thank God he saw through [me], ‘Big Shot Adina.’”
“I had a soul-mate husband, and for that I was, of course, lucky,” she says. “And he was the first person who I had a sense of family, and a sense of belonging, a sense of trust. He had a big foot, and he put it behind my behind. He pushed me, and I couldn’t go back. So we passed.”
“I didn’t have any access to me; I could only look like a chameleon outside of me.”
With Michael by her side and a new psychology degree to her name, Adina began seeking therapy. Her first day was the same day that her daughter was born. “[My parents] protected me as best they could, but I did not have the normal problems that you had growing up,” she says. “So when I became a mom, I was very scared. I didn’t know. So I went into therapy the day [my daughter] was born and I finished therapy the day she graduated from high school.”
While she was in therapy, Adina sought to combat her fear and her brokenness. She sought to battle the Hitler on her shoulder. “I was able to tell myself, because of my therapist, things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to label feelings. When you are little and you learn to speak, your mother and your father tell you the feelings, ‘Oh, you poor child, you’re hurt,’ [making] the connection between the ouchie and the word hurt. Little by little I started to learn and to understand the emotions, the Holocaust, the shame element. I was like a chameleon from all the things that you’re not supposed to be.”
After all the years of changing names and changing identities and harboring her lost childhood, Adina finally had to acknowledge the damage. She finally had to walk the road to recovery. She had to reach back into the Holocaust and haul it into the present, face it in the moment. “I didn’t have any access to me; I could only look like a chameleon outside of me,” she says.
“My therapist said to me this,” Sella continues. “‘There will always be a little Hitler on your shoulder, but it will be such that when he starts acting up you could dismiss it.’ If I had not understood how broken I was and how, you know, not real, I was, today I would’ve been a very unhappy woman.”
Adina Sella knows that her experience in the Holocaust is not over. In fact, it will never end, but if the smiling, energetic woman in the armchair is any indication, it is a story that reveals hope amid the blackness. “The story of my survival is not so much the events, the chronical events,” she says, “But it’s more about what I had to do, so at 78-and-a-half I can be cool. That took a lot, a lot, a lot of work. Many Holocaust survivors couldn’t do it. They didn’t have Michael to tell them ‘It’s good, it’s good. Go, go.’”
“So when you say Holocaust,” she concludes. “I can tell you a story from 1936 when I was born until 1945 when I arrived in Palestine, but to me, this you can read anywhere. A child of the Holocaust is the person that had to fight with Hitler on the inside, and to become the person that they were meant to be, with their gifts and their abilities, and not be the person that has to fight back feelings that were imposed on you.”
As Adina lay under those stairs on that Italian night and prayed for the machine guns, her mother was busy hollowing out a potato to make a candle. It was Friday night, the Jewish Sabbath, and as she had done every Friday night for years and years, Adina’s mother sought to honor Shabbat with the customary blessing. She scooped her potato, found some oil, and searched for a flame to light the improvised candle she had made.
After the intruding Germans gave their orders, Adina’s mother relented, but she asked for one favor: a lighter from one of the soldiers for her little candle. The German soldier, in a seemingly-impossible display of compassion, agreed. He pulled out his lighter and struck the wheel. A spark of light burst into the dark house. Adina’s mother held out the potato and the officer lit her candle. As Peggy’s mother quickly did the blessing, the flame swelled and the room glowed.
Through all of the change that characterized her youth, Adina P. Sella has emerged as someone with a clear idea of herself. It is an idea that encompasses not just one point or another, but her entire history. “Years and years later, I thought about it,” she says. “And I said ‘Adina is very good, and I feel like Adina, but something is missing,’ so I put ‘P’ as my middle initial. So, there was a Peggy, and she is alive.”Continue with the next story →